Credit: Composite image by Leela Stockley

AUGUSTA, Maine — One of the many threads running through the debate over whether Maine should put an elected board in charge of a new electric utility is the political nature of electing board members to oversee a new Pine Tree Power Co.

In a state with relatively few regional offices, the seven regionally elected members would appoint six experts. Those 13 people would run the new electric utility under Question 3 on this November’s ballot. It would be a unique political force with high visibility and big decisions to make regarding costs and reliability.

Pine Tree Power supporters have argued a public utility and its elected board would only answer to Mainers, rather than the investors and foreign-owned parents behind Central Maine Power Co. and Versant Power. The utilities’ multi-million dollar campaign argues it will politicize the grid and send outside money into the state every few years for elections.

Officials in Nebraska, the only state in the U.S. with a statewide consumer-owned power system, say their similar model has generally avoided partisan bickering while delivering some of the cheapest, most reliable service in the country.

Instead of Nebraska’s multitude of local boards in districts throughout the state, Pine Tree Power’s board would be centralized with the seven members and six appointees. All of them would have votes and must be at least 21 years old and reside in Maine, per the initiative. They cannot hold an elected office in the state at the same time.

Each board member would represent five of the 35 state Senate districts. First, they would oversee Pine Tree Power’s buyout of CMP and Versant infrastructure across virtually all of Maine, a process that will cost billions of dollars to be borrowed against future revenue and could take five to 10 years to litigate, Public Advocate Bill Harwood’s office said last week.

The nonpartisan board would eventually use a bidding process to pick at least one non-governmental operator to assist the public utility with maintenance, customer service and other areas, including regulations, capital planning and administrative services.

The Cooper Nuclear Power Station is seen in Brownville, Neb., Thursday, Jan. 2, 2020. Credit: Nati Harnik / AP

Members would serve staggered six-year terms and receive $110 a day for each day the board holds public meetings. The initiative calls for development of an ethics code and says members, their correspondence and meetings would fall under Maine’s open records law.

To compare, Pine Tree Power Campaign Manager Al Cleveland noted former Maine Gov. John Baldacci made $200,000 in 2022 to serve on the board of Avangrid, CMP’s U.S. parent, while the CEO of Iberdrola, Avangrid’s Spain-based parent, makes $14 million annually, with those board meetings not open to the public.

If voters pass Question 3, the first board election would occur in November 2024 and the six appointed experts would start their roles in March 2025. Voters would only elect board members who live in their Senate district grouping. Candidates could receive public funding under the Maine Clean Election Act that is available to gubernatorial and legislative hopefuls now.

The initiative says the appointees must possess expertise across several areas that include but are not limited to: utility law, management and planning; the “concerns” of utility workers and commercial or industrial electricity consumers; electric generation, storage, delivery or other “related technologies; climate mitigation and the environment; and “economic, environmental and social justice,” including the needs of low- and moderate-income people.

The battle lines have been clearly drawn between Pine Tree Power supporters and opponents when it comes to the politics surrounding a new utility, along with reliability and cost.

“Pine Tree Power is more accountable to Mainers because it will be a utility owned by Mainers and whose interests are aligned with the people,” said Ania Wright, legislative and policy strategist with Sierra Club Maine, one of several environmental groups backing the initiative.

Wright added CMP and Versant are driven by “creating profit for the shareholders.” Supporters have used that point to also note the consumer-owned Pine Tree Power would have statutory mandates to report regularly to the Legislature and Maine Public Utilities Commission on its progress toward various goals.

But Rep. Steven Foster, R-Dexter, a member of the Legislature’s energy committee who opposed the similar 2021 utility takeover bill, said an elected board would be “very politically slanted” and not represent “more rural and lower income ratepayers.”

Willy Ritch, spokesperson for the Maine Affordable Energy Coalition opposing Pine Tree Power, said one of the most frequent reasons voters have given him for not supporting the initiative is “that it would put elected politicians in charge of the grid.”

Nebraska utility leaders said the elected boards overseeing the state’s more than 160 municipal utilities, cooperatives and public power districts have largely avoided partisan squabbles while offering some of the nation’s most reliable service and lowest rates. While still relying on coal, Nebraska is also the only Republican-led state to have utilities set a 2050 net-zero carbon emissions goal.

Residents show up to speak at board meetings and can contact the members via phone and email, said Eric Williams, a public power district board member in Omaha, Nebraska’s largest city. While elections for the eight-person board are nonpartisan, Williams said Republicans, Democrats and independents have served on the board.

“I was thinking about one of my colleagues and how, ‘Gee, I can’t even remember what party they are registered to,’ but it matters so little that I’d never considered it before,” Williams said. “The only thing that matters is how we work together.”

Politics has infected all walks of life in recent years, noted Shelley Sahling-Zart, a vice president of the electric system in Nebraska’s capital of Lincoln. Despite that, Nebraskans have been “pretty protective of public power over the years,” and board members also have to answer for their votes both in public processes and at church or Little League games, she said.

“That doesn’t happen with investor-owned utilities,” Sahling-Zart said.

Billy Kobin is a politics reporter who joined the Bangor Daily News in 2023. He grew up in Wisconsin and previously worked at The Indianapolis Star and The Courier Journal (Louisville, Ky.) after graduating...